Republicans protest FCC's Net neutrality move, ISPs less concerned

AT&T and Comcast seem to support FCC Chairman Wheeler's move to re-establish Net neutrality rules

Some Republican policymakers objected to a new U.S. Federal Communications Commission plan to reinstate its Net neutrality rules after a court threw them out, but broadband providers appeared to be less concerned.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday announced a plan to resurrect Net neutrality regulations using authority under a section of the 1996 Telecommunications Act giving the agency responsibility to ensure the timely deployment of broadband.

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in January that the agency didn't have the authority to enforce the rules under its current classification of broadband as a largely unregulated information service, but the court left an opening for the FCC to enforce antiblocking rules under Section 706 of the Telecom Act.

Wheeler's announcement drew criticism from two senior Republicans on the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee.

"No matter how many times the court says 'no,' the Obama administration refuses to abandon its furious pursuit of these harmful policies to put government in charge of the Web," Representatives Fred Upton of Michigan and Greg Walden of Oregon said in a joint statement. "These regulations are a solution in search of a problem, and with the many issues on its plate ... it would be wise for the commission to focus on fostering economic growth, job creation, and competition."

Broadband providers, however, didn't seem as upset about Wheeler's plan.

Verizon Communications, which challenged the Net neutrality rules, "remains committed to an open Internet that provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want," spokesman Ed McFadden said by email.

Asked if Verizon would challenge this new effort, McFadden said the new rules are "all hypothetical at this stage, just like Net neutrality itself."

Comcast, the largest wired broadband provider in the U.S., said it supported the FCC's December 2010 open Internet order establishing the Net neutrality rules, although the company challenged an earlier FCC effort to enforce Net neutrality guidelines.

The 2010 Net neutrality rules were "an appropriate balance of protection of consumer and business interests," Comcast said in a statement. "With the direction announced today, FCC Chairman Wheeler has taken a thoughtful approach which creates a path for enforceable rules based on the appropriate authority outlined by the court's findings."

Comcast has agreed to Net neutrality rules for seven years as a condition of its 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal.

AT&T, the second-largest wired broadband provider in the U.S., said it believes the FCC has the authority under Section 706 to preserve Internet openness.

"AT&T has built its broadband business, both wired and wireless, on the principal of Internet openness," AT&T said in a statement. "That is what our customers rightly expect, and it is what our company will continue to deliver. That is also why we endorsed the FCC's original rule on Net neutrality, and is why we pledged to adhere to openness principles even after the recent court decision."

Wheeler, in his announcement, said he would pursue Net neutrality rules under Section 706 authority, but he also left open the possibility of reclassifying broadband as a regulated common carrier service.

The two Republican commissioners at the FCC criticized Wheeler's move. The FCC has twice lost court cases after attempting to enforce Net neutrality rules, critics said.

"I am skeptical that this effort will end any differently from the last," Commissioner Ajit Pai said in a statement. "The Internet was free and open before the FCC adopted Net neutrality rules. It remains free and open today. Net neutrality has always been a solution in search of a problem."

Several congressional Democrats praised Wheeler's move to pass new rules. Wheeler "has proposed a series of actions that put consumers back in the driver's seat when it comes to their online experience," Representative Anna Eshoo, a California Democrat, said in a statement.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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